Wednesday, May 1, 2013
Heliport Standards: Where the Bears Live
In 1998 at the Heli Japan Conference held in Gifu, Japan, I attended a presentation by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on what they thought future heliport design criteria should include. For instance, at that time the FAA was pushing a 4,800-foot straight line approach at a 3-degree slope. That means you would start the approach 4,800 feet from the pad 250 feet above the heliport. Until then I had viewed heliports as a flat spot on a roof with a few lines, numbers and a windsock. This made them much easier to land on than a mountain peak where one actually had to do your own site survey for things like slope, rocks, tree trunks, bears and whatever the wind was up to. I figured heliports fell into the “can of corn” category. Emergency room nurses can be a bit difficult when you land on their hospital’s heliport, but they aren’t near as grumpy as grizzly bears. After listening to the presentation I became very concerned. Not because I cared about heliports, but because I was employed by a government service that utilized heliports in at least 40 percent of their missions. I really liked being employed by these folks and being somewhat smarter than the bear listed above, not the nurse, I started to pay attention. I solicited the opinions of our pilot staff and attended a few FAA and industry meetings in an effort to share the pilot staff’s opinions of what they would like to see or not see at a heliport.
In 2004, FAA released Advisory Circular AC-2B, the Heliport Guideline, and at the time I thought that industry’s input had injected a bit of common sense into the process. Before you say “that’s only an AC, it’s an ‘advisory,’ not a regulation,” be informed that the individual states are responsible for regulating heliport design and many states incorporate this AC, in whole or part and it becomes the design condition that you have to meet in order to build a heliport. In my opinion this is an interesting way for the Feds to write a law without the burden of actually getting a law passed.
Last year the FAA issued AC-2C, an updated Heliport Design guide. This document has led to a great deal of confusion in the heliport design community and some of the requirements are very difficult to understand from a pilot’s view of risk vs. gain perspective.
For example, in 1974 the Los Angeles City Council enacted a municipal fire code that required all buildings above seven stories to have an Emergency Helicopter Landing Facility (EHLF). This height requirement is generated by the inability of a fire department ladder truck to reach above seven stories. The design standards for these facilities are kept very simple, basically a 50-foot by 50-foot clear spot on the roof with a 25-foot safety zone beyond that, with nothing high enough to be a hazard to the helicopter.
Usually you see these in the corner of the building so that two sides of the 25-foot safety zone are in clear airspace beyond the building. No private or government operations are allowed at these facilities unless there is an emergency condition at that building.
Unless some fool has a gun or the place is on fire, nobody is landing there. I always thought this was a good requirement because it met two standards, the intention was to provide a safe exit, via the rooftop, for folks who were trapped above the seventh floor by a fire below them and the folks that wrote it kept it simple.
Indeed while I was at Los Angeles County Fire I tried unsuccessfully to get a similar code written for the areas that we protected. Unfortunately the harder I tried to keep it simple, the more certain staff members were trying to mandate the equivalent of a full heliport. The libertarian in me was not about to help generate a rule that would require an investment of a couple of hundred thousand dollars for a facility that would probably span the life of the building without being used.
Under previous ACs, these EHLFs were not considered a heliport. The new AC-2C does consider an EHLF a heliport and therefore the EHLF will be inserted into the federal database causing considerable confusion, additionally unlike before normal airspace requirements will apply. Just because a building is within the clear airspace required for LAX doesn’t mean it can’t catch on fire. Do you think that on that once in a lifetime day that the building catches on fire, we might close a chunk of airspace to allow emergency operations for a few hours? If you make your living flying on and off heliports, you might want to read this circular, or your future in helicopters may be restricted to where the bears live. More to follow.
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